Depicting an Ugly America
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
From 1991 to 1998, with the permission of local authorities, Lucinda Devlin took photographs at 20 penitentiaries across America. The resulting group of 30 images, called “The Omega Suites” after the final letter in the Greek alphabet, is a powerful architectural portrait of death row, depicting final holding cells, witness viewing rooms, and, most alarmingly, the instruments of death themselves: gas chambers, electric chairs, gallows, and lethal injection tables.
The images lack all signs of human presence and communicate a frightening institutional indifference. Ms. Devlin has said, somewhat disingenuously, that the goal of her work is not to broadcast an agenda but to allow spaces to speak for themselves. She furthers this impression by creating an illusion of photographic objectivity: Each image is a simple composition that suggests a straight-on documentary approach. This strategy achieves considerable effect, and most viewers, whatever their opinion on capital punishment, will cringe at the sight of these sterile spaces with glowing flourescent bulbs and vast stretches of empty wall colored in lifeless beiges and grays.
While “The Omega Suites” has been shown in museums, galleries, and international art fairs, as well as published widely, many fans may not know how seamlessly they fit into Ms. Devlin’s larger oeuvre, which includes several other collections of peopleless interiors shot in the same matter-of-fact reportorial style. Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery’s summer show corrects this, juxtaposing selections from the artist’s “Pleasure Ground” series (1977–ongoing) — images of the American leisure industry, including hotel theme rooms, discos, nudie shops, and tanning salons — with some of her death-row photographs. This provocative installation reconsiders both bodies of work and enlarges one’s appreciation of Ms. Devlin’s overall project.
“Northern Lights Room, Fanta Suite Hotel, Minneapolis, Minnesota” (1989) depicts a rather hideous hotel suite. One views the bedroom though its doorless entryway, which, like the interior, is lined with white slabs meant to resemble the ice wedges of an igloo; however, with an air vent and several light switches all too plainly visible, the attempt at illusion only goes so far. At the center of the room there is an octagonal waterbed, its sheets a dark ocean blue. Two stuffed penguins on a floating iceberg pillow stand in its midst, and a trophy polar-bear skin clings to the igloo’s back wall.
Garish and preposterous, this room holds little appeal — even polar fetishists, should they exist, would likely be turned off by the careless confusion of arctic (igloo, polar bear) and antarctic (penguins) elements — and when the image is presented in isolation this seems to be precisely its point. But the work elicits more than just snobbish chuckles when hung beside “Lethal Injection Chamber From Family Witness Program, Parchman State Penitentiary, Parchman, Mississippi” (1998).
The formal similarities between the two photographs are immediately evident. “Lethal Injection Chamber” also looks through an opening (in this case, the window of a witness room) onto an interior space dominated by a bedlike resting place (a lethal injection table). And its few details — a clock that ominously reads 1:57, a microphone that dangles a few feet above the headrest (to record the condemned’s last words?), and a crude spotlight angled toward the table — recall the tacky decor of the Northern Lights room.
More significantly, when placed side by side, these images feed off each other to present a broad criticism of American culture, in which the institutional minimalism of the death chamber and the chintzy ostentation of the hotel room are opposite sides of the same coin. Both spaces are characterized by near total disregard of aesthetic values and seem testaments to the onset of cultural decadence.
Another juxtaposition pairs “Private Isolation Tank, Syracuse, New York” (1985) and “Gas Chamber, Arizona State Prison, Florence, Arizona” (1992). Here the uncomfortable architectural similarities between a space designed for relaxation and soul-searching and another intended to end a life are plain for all to see.
One would hardly think that there was any relationship between the tawdry spaces of the leisure industry and the hidden corners of death row. But in the world of Lucinda Devlin, such similarities exist and also transcend questions of method or style. “The Omega Suites” and “Pleasure Grounds” are parts of a large thematic project, the beginnings of a systematic critique of American interiors. In these crude and careless spaces, the artist suggests, abject ugliness can be a form of moral depravity.
A lighter and wittier cultural critique is on display in “Customs,” the latest exhibition of work by the New York and Nepal–based artist Stuart Hawkins. In this spare installation of a DVD, a sculpture, and three large-scale photographs, the artist consistently casts herself in the role of the ugly American abroad and performs it with theatrical flair.
The centerpiece of the show is the DVD “Souvenir” (2006), an occasionally amusing but mostly sophomoric satire of a hapless tourist on a quest for the exotic. The work lampoons every aspect of the Westerner’s traveling persona from her overelaborate trekking outfit to the naïve belief in the existence of a “perfect native.”
More successful are the artist’s photographs. “Day Driver” (2006) depicts a tourist who literally does not touch the ground of the countryside that she visits. A local porter carries her in a basket on his back to a pristine white car, where a white-suited chauffeur awaits beside an open backdoor. A six-piece band wearing comical costumes serenades her, while the real “natives” look curiously from their homes on the opposite side of a wire fence.
In “Welcome Drink” (2006), the ugly American and a local hotel employee fuse into a single creature, a spangled monster of the tourism industry. In the foreground, Ms. Hawkins, seen from behind, bends over to tie her shoe. Her striped underpants show through her white pants and blend with the pattern of the shirt of the waiter standing above her, who holds a tray with a fruity cocktail. Together, client and servant form a centaur-like beast, with Ms. Hawkins’s legs and rear end the animal base, and the waiter’s upper body the human head and torso.
Lucinda Devlin through August (529 W. 20th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 9th floor, 212-414-9810).
Stuart Hawkins until September 23 (530 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-989-7700).